When planning a vacation, in addition to investigating the usual “locals’ favorite eateries” and “most charming hotels,” I try to see how much nature I can squeeze into a visit.
When planning a vacation, in addition to investigating the usual “locals’ favorite eateries” and “most charming hotels,” I try to see how much nature I can squeeze into a visit. I’m a naturalist, and when I find a place with an abundance and diversity of plants and wildlife, it feels like the best of the world has been revealed to me.
Grandfather Mountain is one of those bucket-list spots for nature lovers, and is made up of two distinct areas: the backcountry wilderness of Grandfather Mountain State Park, and the 740-acre nature preserve run by the nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, which is home to the Mile High Swinging Bridge, environmental habitats where you can see animals like black bears and river otters up close, and a nature museum.
Because of the mountain’s astonishing elevation, and because numerous creeks flow off of headwaters — not to mention the hidden caves and cliffs that poke and slice the landscape — Grandfather Mountain is home to an incredible 16 distinct ecological communities.
At more than a mile above sea level, Grandfather Mountain offers visitors a unique vantage point to the natural world, with majestic views of the North Carolina High Country, the Mile High Swinging Bridge, wildlife habitats, hiking trails, and more.
An ecological community is like a unique neighborhood built out of nature. The residents are plants and animals; the buildings are rocks, streams, and puddles. Grandfather Mountain houses such a tremendous diversity of life that to experience its full scope in any other place you would have to mosey from coastal Georgia all the way to Maine. Save the time, I say, and just head to Grandfather Mountain.
Each of Grandfather Mountain’s trails unfolds across its own suite of ecological communities, so every walk you take is like visiting a whole new land. As you plan your visit, consider that the trails vary in their levels of difficulty. Join me for a walk through three of my favorite trails at Grandfather Mountain, and what to look for in the one-of-a-kind environments you’ll find there.
Even though we’re in the mountains, climbing isn’t for everyone. With an elevation change of 300 feet across the mile-long (each way) trail, the Black Rock is more of a pleasant stroll than a hike. To find the trailhead, which is accessible through the nature preserve’s admission gate, make your way by car along the road to the summit. Park at the Black Rock Parking Area, about a half-mile before you arrive at the Swinging Bridge.
On this hike, you’ll pass through spruce-Fraser fir and northern hardwood forests. The spruce-fir forest is a community of survivors, relics of the last ice age. These are trees and creatures that can only survive the area’s coldest conditions. Spruce-fir forest communities are considered the second-most endangered ecosystem in the United States and shelter creatures like the endangered, tarantula-like spruce-fir moss spider and the endangered flying squirrel. Red squirrels, often called “boomers” in the mountain region, will peek at you between branches, with tufted ears and wide eyes.
In the northern hardwood forest, gentle beech and hemlock trees shade your path. This type of community is more common in New England and Canada, but Grandfather Mountain’s high elevation mimics these chillier climes enough to bring the North to the South. Before you arrive, download Grandfather Mountain’s bird list from its website to help you know who to spot dashing between tree branches.
Be on the lookout for stunning panoramic views and mind-bending rock formations as you make your way along the trail.
This trail is short (only 0.4 miles), but not necessarily brief, and will take you through two ecological communities: spruce-Fraser fir forests and rocky high-elevation summit. Begin your hike across the main road from the Black Rock Parking Area.
The ancient and threatened spruce-fir forests found on the Bridge Trail are dotted with a cave or two and rock formations that look almost living and shaded by evergreens and hardwoods. If you’re lucky enough to visit in late May or June, you’ll be greeted with the pink and white blooms of Catawba and Rosebay rhododendron, plus the delicate blossoms of the endangered pink-shell azalea.
Rocks act as steps that lead to Grandfather Mountain’s Mile High Swinging Bridge, spanning two pinnacles in the rocky high-elevation summit area. From the bridge on a clear day, you can see 80 miles, clear to the skyline of Charlotte.
From here, two of the park’s greatest treasures are just beneath your feet. Growing just 16 inches tall, the humble Heller’s blazing star is a rare perennial that thrives on high, rocky peaks. Grandfather Mountain is one of just eight known populations where you can see the plant with delicate, lavender flowers.
Rarer still is the endangered Blue Ridge goldenrod, one of only three known populations. To spot it, look low. Usually reaching 8 inches tall, the feisty plant with golden-yellow flowers could easily be mistaken as a weed — but you’ll know better.
As you take in the scenery, step with care. The trail is rocky and uneven, and good balance goes a long way.
These hikes and the Swinging Bridge offer windows into half the park’s 16 ecological communities, but with the numerous trails winding through Grandfather Mountain’s natural areas, you could spend more than a week exploring the remainder.
While you’re visiting, don’t miss these attractions that give glimpses into the park’s sometimes-hidden wonders:
Wildlife habitats feature bears, cougars, elk, otters, and bald eagles, all easy to see from a short path that winds between the natural enclosures. Learn more about the animal residents you’ll visit by attending one of the daily Keeper Talks (included with park admission), hosted by the folks who take care of them.
Whether or not you packed a picnic, Mildred’s Grill — named after a beloved bear who once made her home in the park — is a cool respite from a day of hiking and exploring. You could choose a mile-high burger and fries or a fresh garden salad, but don’t forget your slice of pie!